Saturday’s 23rd annual Venice Surf-A-Thon rides a multi-generational wave of community support
By Andy Vasoyan
In 1993, Venice was a very different place. Home prices weren’t in the millions, the pier was reeling from storm damage, the Shoreline Crips and Venice 13 gangs were escalating their bloody turf war, and with his military service over, Ger-I Lewis was coming home.
The Venice-raised surfer, skateboarder and former lifeguard would soon add another descriptor to his multi-hyphenate: Surf-A-Thon founder. Since that year, and for over two decades afterward, the man formerly known as Todd Gessel has organized and championed the free-to-watch surf extravaganza at the Venice Breakwater.
The Venice Beach Surf-A-Thon happens for its 23rd consecutive year come Saturday, with a cadre of surfers, musicians and vendors to please the fans that come to watch. It’s a family-friendly affair, but like Venice itself, it wasn’t always that way.
“We got rid of the bikini contest, you know,” Lewis attests. “When I was a younger guy, there was a lot of debauchery. … Now some of the surfers are grandparents. There are three generations of surfers, so we needed to tone it down.”
Those senior surfers get a late start in the final bracket of the Surf-A-Thon at 1 p.m., though early birds can catch the groms (young surfers under 16) duking it out as early as seven in the morning.
The hours in between feature men’s, women’s, masters and longboarder heats, along with a jam-packed bill of performances by local musicians and deejays.
After that comes the award ceremony at the local Fraternal Order of the Eagles post (13018 W. Washington Blvd.) and Lewis’ favorite part of the event: presenting the Tony Cahill Most Outstanding Surfer Award.
Part of the award’s charm, Lewis said, is that it rarely, if ever, goes to a surfer.
“I don’t think it ever has,” Lewis says, “but we give it to anyone who really helps out with the event, who cares about the neighborhood and helps make the event happen.”
The spirit of the neighborhood runs deep in the Surf-A-Thon’s DNA. Cahill, for whom the award is named, passed away in 2014 after a career as a musician and a life spent on a boat off the coast of Venice. The T-shirts given out to all the contestants are custom-drawn by L.A. artist Paloma Perez. The sponsors are almost all local — some of them unmistakably so, including Abbot’s Habit, Santa Monica Airlines and Hecho en Venice (with food, skateboards and apparel, respectively).
If the Surf-A-Thon is a product of Venice, then so is Ger-I (pronounced like Jerry) Lewis. According to his telling, he got the name when some Venice Crips took offense at his style and decided they’d try to “beat his Jerry Lewis-looking ass.” Getting the Surf-A-Thon started required overcoming similar strong-arm tactics, what Lewis calls “old-school thuggery,” and he credits surfer Michael “Frosty” Baldwin for helping him keep the event going. The Surf-A-Thon outlived Baldwin, who was shot and killed in 2011.
For Lewis, the loss of the old guard has preceded changes in Venice itself, and Lewis takes it stoically.
“I don’t want to trash my hometown,” he says, “but everyone knows how it’s changed. It’s unaffordable for the average American.”
Lewis himself lives in Washington, and says this year will be his last as head of the Surf-A-Thon before he hands over control to a committee.
“It’s been gratifying to have served the community for this long,” he says. “If [the Surf-A-Thon] continues, the youth and families that live here now should continue it. I’ve had my run.”
Still, for his last Surf-A-Thon, Lewis is excited.
“Everyone’s going to come and watch and have fun and fellowship,” he says. “It’s going to be a great time, man.”
The 23rd annual Venice Surf-A-Thon happens from 7 a.m. into the afternoon on Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Venice Breakwater. It’s free to watch, but donations are requested. Competition fee is $20 for advanced entries or $25 beachside. Visit facebook.com/Venice-SurfAThon to connect with organizers.